In so many ways, Erin Emily Ann Vance’s short debut novel Advice for Taxidermists and Amateur Beekeepers is a master-class in balance. Its scope is large, detailing an Albertan community’s response to the tragic death of local Margaret Morris and her two young daughters, but Vance condenses her plot into a tight, concise 100 pages. The novel peripherally incorporates local gossip and secondary characters, but it maintains primary focus on the Morris family, through both its history and its fraught current circumstances. As with much of the author’s haunting poetry, this book reaches into the territory of fairy tales and the Gothic, but it simultaneously (and predominantly) grounds itself in contemporary realism. Advice for Taxidermists and Amateur Beekeepers demonstrates this kind of dual function in tonal terms, too: while it strays into morbid territory, it is punctuated throughout by surprising levity and humour.
Vance centralizes her focus on Margaret Morris’s three surviving siblings (Teddy, Agatha and Sylvia) as they navigate the shock and grief of losing their sister and nieces to a housefire. Plot is secondary to the author’s powerful social observations: these characters process memories, reignite relationships and pass time with the kinds of cacophonous thoughts that so often accompany loss. Vance expertly handles the third-person quasi-omniscient mode, dipping in and out of her characters’ varied voices while maintaining a cohesive overall perspective.
Although it exhibits a lot of sympathy for its characters, the novel deserves recognition for its subtle subversion of its own humanist empathy. Not only does Vance demonstrate a knack for acerbic satire, but she also mines the novel’s title vocations (taxidermy and bee-keeping) for metaphoric possibilities. That is, while focusing on the characters’ distinctly human (as in messy and surprising and confused and painful) reactions to death, Advice for Taxidermists and Amateur Beekeepers incorporates striking asides, drawing comparisons between people and bees, among other animals. This kind of quiet affront to human exceptionalism is one of the book’s many clever nods to its Gothic antecedents. Even more strikingly, taxidermy plays a role both in questioning human/nonhuman divisions and in exploring the unnerving connections between sex and death.
In one vivid scene, Sylvia sneaks into her brother Teddy’s taxidermy shop with a man from her past named Jamie. As the two characters have sex, Sylvia finds her eyes drawn to a rabbit’s dead body — “There are few sights more unsettling during sex than a rabbit cut in half and stuffed, waiting for the two halves to be sewn back together,” Vance writes. As Sylvia fixes her eyes on the rabbit, she imagines the animal whispering, “no, this doesn’t feel so right after all.” This is one example of many in which the book plays beautifully with the thresholds of tone (there is no doubting the gallows humour, even if the image is disturbing), and it gestures to Gothic themes of cognitive repression while still rooting itself in pure realism.
Rather than simply absorbing genre structures and tropes, Vance’s book approaches them from a new vantage point, questioning their roles and residual affects on her characters and narrative. One powerful sequence sees Agatha reminiscing about Grimm’s Fairy Tales, a collection she used to read to her siblings. Pondering the idea of finitude in the wake of her recent loss, she muses on the phrase, “Once upon a time.” This passage is among the novel’s most striking, detailing character background and genre associations while also gesturing to farther-reaching social observations. “Once upon a time it was not safe to be a girl,” Agatha reflects, “because girls have fires inside of them and men who are cold cling to their warmth until they leech it from the bones of women and the burn them to death with their own matches.”
Advice for Taxidermists and Amateur Beekeepers succeeds not only as a realist narrative about family, loss, sex and death, but also as a quietly reflexive genre piece. Vance brings her poetic penchant for language and imagery to the forefront and proves herself a formidably skilled writer of character, narrative and dialogue. This is a novel built almost solely out of behaviour, memory and psychology, but it is as riveting to read as any Gothic page-turner. Following in the tradition of Albertan author Suzette Mayr’s Monoceros (2011), this is a moving and special novel about the multi-faceted and communal complications of loss.
Mike Thorn (@MikeThornWrites) is the author of the short story collection Darkest Hours. His fiction has appeared in a number of magazines, podcasts and anthologies, including Dark Moon Digest and The NoSleep Podcast, and his film criticism has been published in MUBI Notebook, The Film Stage and The Seventh Row. He completed his M.A. with a major in English literature at the University of Calgary, where he wrote a thesis on epistemophobia in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness.